It’s best to offload those sinking moods or debilitating worries before any mental or hopeful fix suddenly feels beyond our reach. Has it happened to you? The fact is, our brains take on a dangerous stress chemical, called cortisol, much like a badly listing sailboat takes on water. The lower our ship leans into life’s choppy, dark seas the more we sink into a dangerous and deep abyss.
Have you felt blocked mentally from choosing or reaching toward a higher vision because of a frustrating situation that holds you back? It can be as small as our inability to forgive a wrong, or as massive as feelings that we lack worth. If we spin wheels inside a narrow view that predicts doom when disaster strikes, our ship begins to tilt. Stay there and we soon sink into mental and emotional overload.
Whenever an unexpected wave overwhelms our deep sense of delight, only emotional peripheral vision can help us restore our healthy sense of self. Consider wider peripheral vision from the following view.
Perhaps we miss healthy escape routes because we …
- feel stuck in a rut, stung by guilt, gobsmacked by regret or suffer a sense of being swallowed by stuff beyond our control.
- find ourselves on the other end of a phone call with a robot that’s unable to connect to our need for human help.
- cannot identify the problem, but simply feel so far down we have to look up just to see bottom.
Cortisol can become our silent killer in these difficult situations. Good news is that we can deliberately sidestep our habits of waiting for that next disaster. How so? I had a lot of bad things happen as a young person, and these kept me thinking that life would send more bad things my way.
When we anticipate the next good thing, on the other hand, we set the brain’s stage for sidestepping barriers and leaping toward our newly focused target. Rather than fear the next bad thing clobbering us, the brain equips us to predict fun new possibilities that carry us past any problems that pop up. For me, the shift took a brain based action on my part, and amazing love on God’s part.
You may have guessed by now that fear, worry and anxiety begin in our brains, not in life’s difficult experiences. Faith, agape love and unconditional grace also begin in our brains, when we access the energizing acceptance and support of divine care. When we speak, think and act on good things, we take on healthy serotonin fuels, just as we take on cortisol toxins that fuel frustrations when we double down on fears and worries that leave us depressed.
Tormenting thoughts may trick us to focus on and act on cortisol-fueled pathways, but agape love with its unconditional and amazing grace leads us to spot refreshing possibilities. Cortisol narrows our peripheral vision so that we see problems loud and clear. Grace changes our focus from personal weakness to trust in a higher power, or divine acceptance.
Listen to angry rhetoric, envy those who get ahead, or engage in name-calling, or unforgiveness, and we also trigger a brain fueled by dangerous stress chemicals. If unchecked, these cortisol toxins can impact entire groups, lead to schisms, destroy reputations, or worse.
Long before we realize the stress problem, our brain may already be wired to fail us. Simple choices we make about moods today though, will likely surprise us with tomorrow’s mood changes. How so?
Yield to worry about the fate of a person we love, for instance – and we open windows to stress hormones that may appear as savior but will strike as a killer.
Out of Sorts?
Consider the simplest step into cortisol. Let’s say we find ourselves crankier than normal. We may suffer anxiety, or fear that stops us from taking that risk that will help ace our next stressor test.
When anxiety wins over kindness for instance, we’ve likely stirred up cortisol’s dangerous chemical hormones in our brains. Cortisol destroys relationships, decreases courage, blocks solutions, and wages war on our well being.
Shrink our Brains?
You likely agree by now that cortisol’s potent chemicals surge when we slip into stress. But did you know that cortisol is now recognized as a drug that can literally shrink human brains? It leaves other damaging footprints behind too, that luckily can be avoided through awareness of its trickery. Researchers have known for some time, for instance, that cortisol shuts down learning, creates anxiety attacks and can cause debilitating despair.
Depression is now a leading factor in so many mental breakdowns. This problem becomes a vicious circle when cortisol levels increase, and shut down our reasoning ability to step beyond problems to embrace possibilities.
Less known, until recently, are tactics to counter cortisol surges.
You may be saying … but cortisol has useful purposes, and you are correct. It’s a short term chemical which is useful to treat allergies, or zap us with the energy to survive a shocking moment. Cortisol can also lower sensitivity to pain, help us survive grief, or pull us through a short term pressure project.
Check out our animated cortisol video that introduces CORT, a fictitious little cortisol character with real brain parts. CORT is one of 6 little namungos who each illustrate a key part of our brains that determines if we will bring on more stress or leap forward toward success by fueling different mental choices.
Ready to create your own stress free learning zone? We can also teach others to create safe spaces where peripheral vision flourishes.
Imagine an area where teens love to meet, where stress can’t survive, and laughter livens all learning that occurs!
Stress’ Long-term Effects
Research shows cortisol to react in following ways:
Long-term cortisol surges though, where we maintain harmful toxic levels that can be highly dangerous to our mental wellbeing. Cortisol disrupts vital sleep, for instance.
We may react negatively when under cortisol’s harmful chemical surges, yet we can also choose escape routes before we fall too far.
Escape Daily Doses of Cortisol
To flee from or lower dangerous levels of cortisol:
a. Relax, listen to music, take a walk, and run from stress by acting on its opposites.
b. Spend time with upbeat people, laugh, and steer away from cynics. (Did you know children laugh 300 to 400 times a day, compared to 17 times adults laugh?)
c. Manage time by creating doable daily targets. Include fun adventures and avoid overloads.
d. Take up an enjoyable sport, do stairs, park far from doors and avoid passivity.
e. Give away things, care, join service groups such as Rotary, and run from financial anxiety.
f. Teach from our strengths, inspire excellence, yet flee perfectionism that beats up on self or blames others.
g. Propose winning solutions and avoid fixation on problems at home and work. h. Reflect or meditate – consider healing connections between brainpower and belief if these exist for you.
You likely get the idea, and may well have better alternatives to stress toxins than mine. Action that includes fun is our best tool to sidestep cortisol’s confinement. Strange as it may seem, the key is to do the opposite of whatever creates cortisol. Yes, we can fake it until we make it, because even a well intentioned smile offers an opposite of a cortisol response. We rewire our brains for more serotonin guided behaviours, by acting opposite of cortisol-driven moods.
22 Stressors Come on an Ordinary Day
People who deal well with stress soon after it strikes, remind us how to take control of that “out-of-sorts-feeling” before our tiny vessel goes down in an angry sea of challenges. To act deliberately and quickly is to avoid the kind of cortisol that results in rage, resentments, or regrets. Once we allow cortisol to cause deep depression, it’s harder to bounce back. Not impossible, but harder.
We’re told that on average 22 stressors hit us daily, for instance. Wonder what these 22 might look like? The list below came from participants in brain conferences I led in 20 countries, but similar challenges will likely stalk us all at one time or another.
In each stressor below – our responses work for or against our brain’s healthy peripheral vision:
1. The alarm goes off when we are in the deepest part of sleep and long before we are ready to rise.
2. We bulge over the waistline of our favorite slacks and don’t have time to change.
3. Our significant other is lively and cheerful while we feel like quiet and even a bit of gloom.
4. Gas is low on the car and we don’t have time to stop for a fill before an appointment.
5. Roadwork keeps us waiting past the point where we can stop into Starbucks for the Latte we dashed out the door just in time to grab.
6. No parking spot exists near our building, and we have five minutes before a critical appointment.
7. We worked all morning on a computer project – then lost our file before it saved, and experts assure us it’s gone for good.
8. We live with or must put up with somebody’s poor tone skills, that blames things on us and refuses to reflect on the real problem.
9. We left our agenda home – and after we’d called a meeting where we reminded participants to be there and come prepared.
10. The air conditioner broke and we wore a warm suit jacket that keeps us sweaty and cannot be removed.
11. Our help is sick again and forgot to tell us why we can expect yet another unexplained absence.
12. The person we dislike most at work just applied for a position we’d planned to go after.
13. We forgot our lunch and there is no break to get out to get one before another long meeting.
14. Four negative stories about our competence come back from colleagues and all were relayed as anonymous.
15. The phone rings more than usual and interrupts the memo that we promised to have written by the end of the day.
16. Our allergies go crazy because the guy down the hall brought his dog over and set them off – the one day we don’t have meds with us.
17. The man who asks us a favor, often complains to others about us, according to peers – but he is all smiles and warm words when he’s after something.
18. The family calls to tell us with regret, why they’ll not be attending our special event.
19. The guy next door plays a jazz station outside all day, and we despise jazz but can’t find words to deter him.
20. We were in charge of the coffee this month and it has run out so others remind us hourly why they too have no caffeine today.
21. The woman who chews gum loudly and talks endlessly on the phone, tells a bad joke – one that we’ve heard her tell many times –and that’s still not funny.
22. We agreed reluctantly to go to a diner with hot and greasy food we abhor, with a neighbor who talks about self incessantly.
Whew, 22 stressors! What a tough challenge packed into one day, and we are said to have that many coming again tomorrow. Do you see any propensity for lowering cortisol in ways that avoid cursing the dark?
The best way past cortisol is to respond with serotonin possibilities, where we find grace and enjoy calm in our response. Some may find these stressors will stir up cortisol in ways that leave them debilitated in anger, stress or anxiety. Sadly, each time we act on cortisol-led-responses we lay down new neural connections for more of the same.
What serotonin-led strategy works best when cortisol-led stressors sucker punch us on a busy day?
One of the following TpT resources helps secondary students and college classes to move from cortisol’s stress to learning success.
From Stress to Success and a Healthy Mindset
Luckily the human brain also comes fine-tuned for serotonin success, through doing healthier actions. For example, our brain comes equipped to rewire dendrite brain cells for serotonin well-being and growth plasticity in areas that had once created cortisol imbalances.
It’s worth an effort to make a few changes, when we think about the rewards. Yes, we can replace cortisol crankiness for serotonin serenity. It’s also true that some people come with lower levels of downer drugs in their DNA, and seem to generate fewer fluctuating cortisol surges. Have you noticed how calm and rational some people remain – even if a hairy spider meanders past or a snake slithers by?
Spiders or snakes aside, why choose cortisol and stress rather than focus on the wonder and adventure of lowered cortisol for finer mental wellbeing?
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Created by Ellen Weber, Brain Based Tasks for Growth Mindset